Roseanne: The Weight of an Apology

Jun 7, 2018

TAA 0022 – C. Travis Webb, Seph Rodney, and Steven Fullwood discuss Roseanne Barr’s apology. How much credit should she get? Can we fight for a progressive political agenda and make room for forgiveness and empathy?

C.T. WEBB 00:18 [music] Good afternoon, good morning, or good evening, and welcome to The American Age Podcast. Today we have a full house. I’m talking to Steven Fullwood and Seph Rodney. How are you guys doing today?
S. FULLWOOD 00:26 Pretty good. Pretty good. How are you doing Travis and Seph?
S. RODNEY 00:29 Can’t complain. Nice to be here.
C.T. WEBB 00:33 Yeah, same for me. So today’s topic is an issue that is definitely at the forefront of discussions right now all over the media, and that is Roseanne. But we wanted to come at it from a slightly different angle and that is, what weight should we give Roseanne’s apology after the, I think almost universally condemned Tweet? I mean, even Fox News, which did their whole sort of song and dance around blaming Bill Maher and things like that. Even Fox News in their headline called her Tweet racist so it was just about nearly – across at least mainstream media – universally condemned. And then what came out a few days later, Roseanne after some other just madness, apologized pretty unreservedly and claimed that she begged ABC’s Executive who pulled the plug on the show – I don’t remember his or her name – and said, “Begged for the show to stay on the air,” and that she would do whatever she needed to do in order to make amends. And so what I wanted to pose to you Steven and Seph is, why isn’t that enough? Or is it enough to give her, I don’t want to say a 2nd chance because I mean, she’s been in and out of just kind of some crazy opinions throughout the years? But whatever, a 10th chance, call it whatever number you want to call it. How do you guys feel about the apology?
S. RODNEY 02:21 Please feel free to go ahead Steven, I’m interested in hearing what you have to say?
S. FULLWOOD 02:24 Okay. So earlier, you said to me and Travis that it was an apology, it’s really a serious of apologies and then justifications and so taken altogether, it could be called a mess [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 02:43 Yes, it could be called that [laughter].
S. FULLWOOD 02:45 It was the anatomy of a non-apology. So for the last maybe 20 years, we’ve been hearing non-apologies. If someone, somewhere was offended by something that I might have done, I didn’t see it that way but I see your point. I mean, we’ve been sort of witnessing this for a while so I was thinking about– I think Roseanne Barr’s Tweet kind of put me on a news fast. So through the month of June, I decided not to get on in on the news programs or read, I just needed to step back because I was watching this frenzy whip up and one report after another was reporting this. But they’re not really adding anything to the conversation. It’s just, Roseanne fucked up, didn’t know that Valerie Jarrett was black. And there’s just a bunch of noise and so I think whether or not it’s enough, it’s such a complicated question– I mean, it’s not a complicated question, answering it makes me think that we live in a time where apologies from public figures, they just don’t know how to apologize. They’re not sorry. So they’re all based on whether or not you can improve or save or increase your brand. So I love it when people just say, “I’m very sorry,” and that’s pretty much it. But I have yet to see that or at least I’m just not finding it in the literature or on broadcast. But people are constantly sort of like, “Well, this is what you’re going to say and this is how you’re going to say it, and you’re going to stick to this.” And so I think we’re at a really interesting moral moment where your politics and saving your business and your brand means everything. And so I think she was the straw that broke my camel’s back. I’m just tired of that kind of news. She’s part of that, so. What do you think, Seph?
S. RODNEY 04:36 I slightly disagree with you on a couple of things. One is I don’t think that saying, “I’m sorry,” is enough. And I’m going to be rather prescriptive about what I think an apology is, a proper apology is. A proper apology, and this actually brings to mind– what I’m about to say brings to mind a conversation I had with you, Travis, a couple of days back. A proper apology constitutes saying that I am sorry, which ultimately I think means, I regret my actions. I did something which given the choice– no, I did something which I recognize did you harm. Two, that you admit that. That you admit that what you did was harmful. I think it’s not just enough to say, “I feel bad about what I did,” but–
S. FULLWOOD 05:35 Oh, no. I agree with that–
S. RODNEY 05:36 –what I did hurt you in some way. Materially, physically, emotionally, whatever. Two, I think I disagree with you slightly in the way that you constructed a moment as being one where our morality is really kind of centered on making sure that our brand, whatever that is, is protected. I actually think that that’s an absence of morality. I mean, here I’m kind of splitting hairs, right? But I think that that’s a failure of morality to be as sort of carefully stitched into our lives as it could be. I’m not even going to say as it once was because I don’t know if it once was, but as it could be, as it needs to be.
C.T. WEBB 06:37 Oh, I agree with you.
S. FULLWOOD 06:38 Very much agree with that.
S. RODNEY 06:40 So I think that Roseanne actually, given what I’ve read about what she said, she came close to actually giving a genuine apology in that I think there was wrapped up in some of what she said, a recognition that she did harm, I think. But my argument is actually rather that the apology, even though it had the form and shape of what I consider a genuine, proper apology, it was just said instrumentally. It was just said to save her career. And here I’m reading her in a way psychologically, that I don’t really have a right to. But all the indications are that [crosstalk]–
C.T. WEBB 07:23 Oh, no. You absolutely have a right to. I’d agree with that.
S. FULLWOOD 07:25 Absolutely.
C.T. WEBB 07:25 I mean, how else do you interpret anyone’s actions. You always have to do it. I mean, that’s just the process you have to go through. Is this person a credible witness?
S. RODNEY 07:32 Fair enough. Right. And she doesn’t strike me as credible because here’s the thing, as Steven said, she’s done this before. I mean, the woman Tweeted out a picture of her dressed up as Adolf Hitler–
S. FULLWOOD 07:48 I know. I know. I know–
S. RODNEY 07:48 –with a tray of cookies. So taken from the oven, saying something about– I mean, this woman has no– again, I hesitate to say this because I feel like it’s over judgmental but this woman has no kind of conscience? She has no recognition of someone else’s humanity in a way that will, at least, impinge on or shape her actions. There’s just no evidence of that to me.
C.T. WEBB 08:23 So she strikes me as a provocateur. I mean, she’s a comedian as well but– I’m glad you brought up the example of the Hitler and the Jew cookies because that is unbelievably dark, yes, but, but over beers, really dark humor with friends, I mean– you liked, Steven, in the Blackening, one of your favorites lines was that, “Being gay is just like being white, wrapped up with a bag of dicks,” or something like that [laughter], so.
S. FULLWOOD 09:01 Catch it, catch it, catch it [laughter]. Right.
C.T. WEBB 09:02 Yeah. Yeah, yeah. That’s right. I mean, that is really edgy, dark, penetrating humor. Now, I’ve never found Roseanne very funny. I just don’t think she’s very funny but clearly lots of people do think she’s funny, so that’s fine. So it doesn’t have to be my humor, but as far as Seph’s read that there’s something heartfelt or legitimate about the apology. I do think that goes to the heart of the matter because I think that’s the calculation that we make when we decide to accept or reject someone’s apology. I mean, I think our reflex as sensitive human beings is to accept contrition when it’s offered, sincerely. I mean, even if it’s someone– I mean, you saw this at work in South Africa and the Truth and Reconciliation courts. I mean, just the very act of sincerely owning the grievance that one has perpetrated on someone else is oftentimes enough to elicit a sympathetic response. Just because of the way we’re socialized, the way we’ve evolved. So I think Seph’s question is exactly the heart of it. So do we accept that this apology by Roseanne–
S. RODNEY 10:35 Is genuine?
C.T. WEBB 10:36 –is a legitimate, genuine apology? Oh, I’m sorry. No, jump in, Steven. Go ahead.
S. FULLWOOD 10:42 No, no. Legitimate apology? So what I wanted to ask you earlier, Seph, when you were talking was, I thought you were actually going to mention that contrition or that apology needs to come with some sort of action.
S. RODNEY 10:58 No, actually I don’t. But that’s good, go with that–
S. FULLWOOD 11:01 And see that’s the issue I have with South Africa as well because the Truth and Reconciliation Committees, yes, you did these things but where’s the power balance today? What does Soweto look like? What do these other places look like? And so I agree with you guys when it comes to that heartfelt apology but action needs to follow it. So in the case of Roseanne, I remember reading something in the New York Times, a woman said, “Her apology could have come with, I am now aware of the racists Tweets, or I’m aware of my racism and now I’m going to do something about it.” If maybe the apology would have held more weight for people. And then for her to simply stop there and actually show up with some action on it. But what you said, Travis, though about the whole edgy, dark humor thing, I’m definitely into that. And when I saw the picture, this was like 2008 or 2009, I was like, “What’s Roseanne up to?” I didn’t take it as offensive. I was like, “Maybe she’s drawing attention to something.” I don’t know because pictures taken out of context, it’s the Cathy Griffins saga. So edge humor, for me, comedians have to walk that line and figure out how far they’re going to push it. So I don’t have a problem with edge humor because comedians have to do that, we need to know where the line is. And also, sometimes humor like that illuminates some things, in the case of Michelle Wolf at the Correspondents’ Dinner. I mean, people really were really angry at her. There were people taking her words out of context, or not even realizing– and I was like, “The age of outrage is really tiring and frustrating because, at least, be outraged about something you’ve researched, thought about, given it a moment before you just Tweet, or before you just post.” But apology with action, that’s where I’m going to go with that.
S. RODNEY 12:50 So my follow-up question then, Steven, is with something like what happened in South Africa with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, if you find there’s a lack of substantive action, do you then retroactively judge the apology as not being genuine?
S. FULLWOOD 13:08 Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, because I think that apologies aren’t enough. Words are never enough–
C.T. WEBB 13:14 Yeah. So I think that’s an unfair standard because I think–
S. FULLWOOD 13:17 Go ahead.
C.T. WEBB 13:17 So in South Africa, for example, I mean you are talking about hundreds of years of structural oppression. I don’t care how sorry you are as a collective. Unless you are mobilized to action, to restructure that society, that responsibility is on everyone. And I’m not saying– I mean, where is the political will for that? How exactly do you enact those changes? I’m not saying that those changes shouldn’t take place and my awareness of kind of the dramatic poverty in South Africa is cursory, except that I am aware that it is dramatic and it seems to be recalcitrant. It only seems to be getting worse. And so these kind of structural issues, I mean, on that front, you have to blame 200, 300, 400 years of history for the kind of poverty that exists there. And the corruption that was prevalent in Mandela’s party, especially after Mandela left power. So I think we have to make room for the limited power of individuals or even small groups to make structural changes. And still give space– and I know that this really tiptoes up to the line of being treacly, but literally make space in your heart for that people can actually feel genuinely contrite about what they have done to someone else, and still not really have the capacity to change or make amends for that.
S. RODNEY 15:19 Okay. So I want to jump in, Steven, please. Please allow me [laughter].
S. FULLWOOD 15:24 Go right ahead [laughter]. I wrote down what I needed to say.
S. RODNEY 15:27 Cool. Good. Thank you for that. So my response is to pose a question. I happen to have a conversation last week with Mitch Landrieu who is the Mayor of New Orleans.
S. FULLWOOD 15:43 Oh, wow. Okay.
S. RODNEY 15:43 He came to Brooklyn to give a speech at the Brooklyn Public Library last week. And I had the chance to interview him for about 12 minutes before he gave the speech. And actually what he said is spurring me to pose my question, was said during the speech. He said, not only is it incumbent on people to apologize for what they did with regards to putting up symbols – and this is way after the Civil War, right – putting up symbols that basically said to people living in those southern communities – southern and northern communities – “We still rule this bitch.” And he acknowledged that. This is what those statues were about. But he said, and this is where I think things derailed for me. He said, “Not only is it incumbent on people to apologize and say that I’m sorry for doing this. But it’s also incumbent on people to forgive them. To hear the apology and to accept it.” And my thing is, I’m not so sure about that. I mean, I think what he’s saying is, he’s asking for a particular– he’s saying in order to have a particular political thing happen, that has to happen. One to has apologize genuinely and contritely, and one has to accept that apology.
S. RODNEY 17:14 And I recall years and years ago, Travis telling me a story about some character, and it was a fictional account. Some character, a woman I think, was wronged by someone and the person apologized to her and she said nothing. She didn’t even acknowledge that the person had spoken. She just said nothing. They apologized contritely and said, “I’m sorry. I really wronged you. What I did was hateful and mean.” And she just heard him and kept doing what she was doing. And I thought, “Actually, if I was truly, truly angry at someone, that is precisely what I would do.” I don’t think that it’s incumbent on me if I’ve been hurt, if I’ve been harmed by someone, to accept their apology. They can apologize, that’s fine. That’s the least they can do. If however, we’re talking about structuring a society in such a way as to produce the means by which we can live in harmony, then perhaps one does have to accept the other person’s apology. I don’t know.
C.T. WEBB 18:36 So, Steven, just interrupt if you have something that you wanted to say. The only small thing I would just add to it is for myself, I would want to draw a small distinction between what I would expect of an individual and what I would expect of a group. So in the example you just gave, yeah, I don’t think you’re under any obligation to accept someone’s apology if you don’t want to. And I think that is 100%, not just your right in some kind of abstract sense, but you are not then obligated to the person who has wronged you, to absolve them of what they did. I don’t think that at all. I think as a group, though, as a society, where you moved it at the end, the society of harmony. So if we don’t make a space for that, if we don’t ritualize it, if we don’t codify it, if we don’t– jump in, what were you going to say?
S. RODNEY 19:35 Well, I just want to make it clear to listeners. When you say it, you mean forgiveness, right?
C.T. WEBB 19:39 Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. If we don’t have some way to even just perform forgiveness as a community, I don’t know how we stay together as a community.
S. FULLWOOD 20:00 No, absolutely. And I think we can see that when it comes to– well, I’ll use Roseanne if it makes sense, and then I’ll go to South Africa. But with Roseanne, right, I think Roseanne spoke obviously before she thought. She thought she was telling a funny joke [laughter], right? Obviously. And then there were all these people’s jobs that were on the line, that were lost. And I think that increasingly through her apologies, the ones that were sort of resembling apologies, she started to recognize that. And I’m not sure if she recognized it because she thought of it, or because of the stories, because of the Tweets, because of things coming there. So I wonder about the quality of her apology, what it was composed of? And then finally, her going, “I begged for my job, and I said I’ll do anything.” So when I think of the idea of accepting someone’s apology, I think it’s good for the community, for that person. I mean, I think I remember seeing something on television once where this woman had apologized to another woman, I think it was a story about the South and Jim Crow. And the woman just said, “Okay.” She just nodded her head like, “I’m not going to say I accept your apology but I’ll just go, noted. Duly noted [laughter].” And that’s kind of how I feel about a lot of things. I’m like, “I will forgive you but you’ve got something else to wrestle with that has nothing to do with me,” in that sense. And so, yeah, I think I’d rather apologize and get it off my chest in a selfish way, and to be contrite and say, “I won’t do that again, and I will make sure that I don’t do that again.” As opposed to, trying to defend myself by saying that, “Oh, but because I did this and oh, because it was raining and just–“
C.T. WEBB 21:56 Ambien–
S. FULLWOOD 21:57 Ambien? Ambien. That’s all we have to say? But, yeah, so you’re under no obligation to accept anyone’s apology, real or imagined, authentic or not. But I do like the idea of us finding a way to be with each other in really meaningful ways. No, really. I agree with you earlier about the morality, your point about morality stuff. That it’s the absence of it, it’s the absence of that quality that could– if infused or put back in or just realize and recognize that we’re all human and that we should care about each other, the quality of our lives. Everyone should care about it, then things would be, obviously, much better. But right now, I have all kinds of theories, I won’t put them on you guys. But I think that there’s something to being a good person and showing that you care about other people. And apologizing when you’ve made a mistake, and showing that to kids.
S. RODNEY 23:08 I want to personalize this because I think that we do have a tendency to really go abstract quickly–
C.T. WEBB 23:14 What? What are you talking about [laughter]?
S. FULLWOOD 23:16 I don’t know what that means [laughter]?
S. RODNEY 23:17 Oh, that’s funny.
S. FULLWOOD 23:19 [inaudible]. [inaudible] [laughter].
S. RODNEY 23:23 I’m reminded actually of Travis’ engagement party, years and years ago, when– I mean, you haven’t been married that long. I shouldn’t make it sound like that.
C.T. WEBB 23:35 Yeah. [crosstalk] pretty damn old, man [laughter].
S. RODNEY 23:36 It wasn’t like eons, right? I apologize.
S. FULLWOOD 23:39 Back in the 50s [laughter]?
S. RODNEY 23:41 But I publicly apologized to Travis at that engagement party for something that I’d done earlier on in our friendship. And I remember that Travis was really moved by it. And I remember thinking to myself afterwards that part of the reason I did it, was not so much to elicit Travis’ emotional response, although I may have had some inkling that that would happen, but it was more that I felt like it made it more real? It made it more genuine because I did it publicly. Because I said, “No, you were a real friend to me. I wronged you and I recognize how you bounced back from that and was still a real friend to me. And I really appreciated that.” And so this is said in a public venue where basically people are telling stories about sort of what a great couple these two people are going to make. And that is part of the sort of mythos to them, whipping up around Travis. But it’s still very true to me. It was meaningful to me that that thing occurred. And so I guess I want to ask, in your own lives, for both of you, Travis and Steven, have there been moment where you’ve felt like the apology was done not just to relieve your guilty conscience, but it was done for other reasons. You knew somehow that– and I want to think too, have you ever made an apology publicly and if so, why?
S. FULLWOOD 25:22 So can I just do one thing, Seph, very quickly. And I just wanted to find out what Travis felt about that apology? And if he remembers it?
C.T. WEBB 25:30 Yeah. Oh, yeah, of course, I remember it. Yeah, I remember it very well. It was meaningful to me. It was particularly meaningful because it’s not that I had forgotten it but it was nowhere weighing on any scale in my assessment of my friendship with Seph. This was just something that was in the past. He had actually stolen my last Snickers bar and I was very angry about that [laughter]. And so it was quite–
S. RODNEY 26:03 Cut him off. Just cut him off [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 26:06 So I mean, yeah, it was really meaningful. And it was meaningful because of the public nature of it, right? I mean, you have to sort of lay yourself bare in that moment because I mean, Seph’s a sensitive guy so you know the host of questions that followed that. And not just the questions of him but the questions of me, and so you’re exposing yourself. And I think that that exposure makes something, for me at least, makes something more potent.
S. FULLWOOD 26:36 I thought it was really lovely that he did it publicly and that people were bearing witness to the character of your friendship, an aspect of that. And I thought that that was very meaningful when he said it, when he told the story. And I was like, “Well, what did Travis think, and how did he feel?” And it’s interesting sometimes when you think you’ve wronged someone, and they’re like, “Oh, okay.” It doesn’t hold the same kind of weight on both sides of the argument, or the story. So I just wanted to find out what you thought so, yeah.
C.T. WEBB 27:10 So do you have [crosstalk]–?
S. FULLWOOD 27:11 A public apology? I don’t really have a public apology. I just know that throughout the years with my close orbit of friends that, for example, a friend of– I shan’t say his name because he doesn’t like to be public. But we were traveling together overseas and he started snipping at me because we were on a train, and I started to shut down, I was just exhausted. We had been on the train for seven hours and when we get to our friend’s place, just before we go to sleep, he says, “I want to apologize to you.” It wasn’t a public apology but it meant something to me. I was able to sleep and I said, “No problem.” I said, “Both of us were tired and we were being snippy with each other.” And it meant a lot to me because alpha males aren’t generally wrong [laughter], so it was a really good moment for us. But I can’t think of a public apology that I’ve had.
C.T. WEBB 28:04 It’s funny, you actually anticipated something that I was going to say. So you said the alpha males aren’t usually wrong. To me, that always reads as weakness and it’s something I had read. You know you read things when you’re at a pretty formative age in your 20s, and sometimes things just really stick. And it was a really short book called Zen Mind, Beginner Mind. I was really into Zen and Buddhism when I was very young. And there’s just a throw away part of it where he was talking of sort of the idea of contrition and apology, and that when you apologize and own your flaws and weaknesses, that they are no longer flaws and weaknesses because no one can use them against you. That they can’t be leveraged to shame you and it’s this idea of having sort of a clear mind about yourself. So that has stuck with me throughout my adult life. And so I just run to an apology. This is my chance to make myself better. This is my chance to examine this thing that I did. So, yeah, I’ve publicly apologized many times and privately apologized. And I don’t fear apologies at all and I think people that do fear, I think that’s a kind of weakness, I really do. I think you need to own the shit that you suck at [laughter].
S. RODNEY 29:41 I fully, fully concur. And I just want to follow up with one anecdote which is a slightly convoluted one. But I had a conversation with my boss, Rob, the other day and he was saying something about being on a panel with someone and this woman, who I won’t name– him basically saying, you did something that didn’t really put me in a great position to be on this panel, sort of tiptoeing up to the line, to say kind of, “Why did you do that? You put me in a really bad position.” And she was like, “Hmm.” It didn’t occur to her to say, “I’m sorry.” It didn’t occur to her to apologize. And she’s an art bigwig and so she has a lot of ego in her line, whatever. But then I noticed that weeks later, when we had some stuff going on in the office where I felt like Rob had the chance, the opportunity to apologize, he didn’t. And I just thought to myself, and I didn’t say it to him, and I’ve been meaning to but we haven’t had the chance to have a private chat yet. I meant to say to him, we talked about this and you know what it’s like to be on the other side. Why didn’t it occur to you in that moment to just say, “Hey, I’m sorry. I think we really screwed up in doing this. That’s our fault.” It seemed like some people just have a kind of blind spot about that. Not only do they regard apologizing as a weakness but they also aren’t able, it seems, to step back and say to themselves when someone’s wronged them and they wanted that apology, they can’t seem to say to themselves, they can’t seem to see that happening at their own hands. I just find that strange.
C.T. WEBB 31:33 Yeah. Shooting an elephant is what jumps to mind, George Orwell’s account of the shooting of an elephant when he talks about the entire history of the British Empire in Asia is the attempt of the white man to not be embarrassed in front of the natives [laughter]. So they can’t be seen to be making a mistake and so everything they do is to cover and to show that they haven’t made a mistake, that they haven’t blundered where they shouldn’t have blundered.
S. RODNEY 32:07 Yeah. I’m grateful for the fact that I’m at the place in my life emotionally and intellectually where I recognize that’s just as foolish. I’m ready, and willing, and able to apologize for anything that I do wrong. Yeah. And I think that’s actually where as a culture we need to get to.
S. FULLWOOD 32:28 Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
C.T. WEBB 32:30 So Roseanne, just a heartfelt apology. I’ll give you my cell phone number, you can call, I’ll forgive you. Seph?
S. FULLWOOD 32:36 I’ll forgive you and I want to see some action [laughter].
S. RODNEY 32:40 Yeah. I’ll forgive you as long as I see some action. Get your act together.
C.T. WEBB 32:47 I, however, will forgive you for a donation to our non-profit so–
S. FULLWOOD 32:51 Oh, that would be great [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 32:54 So thanks very much for the conversation, Seph and Steven. And I’ll look forward to talking to you guys again soon.
S. FULLWOOD 33:03 Take care.
S. RODNEY 33:03 All right. Take care.
C.T. WEBB 33:04 Thank you.
S. RODNEY 33:04 All right. [music]


First referenced at 28:04

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind 

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”


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